At least the movie isn’t entirely a paint-by-numbers biopic. Goold presents the character’s rough childhood as a nightmarish set of surreal memories, and a ghoulish monstrosity who lords over the young performer in the form of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer. “I make movies, Judy, but it’s your job to give those people dreams,” he says, peering down at her as they wander the yellow brick road. It’s a spooky starting point, but “Judy” returns to these fragmented memories so often they start to feel like padding for a story that’s spinning its wheels from the outset.
Judy Film Review: Renee Zellweger Gets to the Core of Judy Garlands Tragic Decline
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On her way to marrying her fifth husband, the film watches as Judy falls apart. Even if those around her can occasionally get her on stage to sing, she often fails and walks off, as Garland did in real life. Zellwegers Judy struggles with insomnia, tossing and turning. We flash back to Judys early days at MGM, where she repeatedly tried to escape a life of being a studio pony. The only thing Judy could hold onto was the love she received from her audience when she performed.
Garland’s contemporary circumstances unfold as a series of histrionic showdowns, with the occasional bittersweet tangent. A dyspeptic bundle of frustration and fatigue, Garland shrugs off rehearsal sessions to drink and pop pills, wallowing in her dark history. The movie speeds through some occasional bright spots, including her fifth marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), but there’s a peculiar flatness to their romance that has a shoehorned-in quality. Garland’s ongoing fears of repercussion from the overseer of her tour (Michael Gambon) hold some measure of intrigue, but they’re similarly one-note — Cliff Notes to a drama on autopilot.
The one exception involves a relationship Garland forges with a couple of gay British fans, including a touching performance by Andy Nyman that epitomizes Garland’s ability to tap into the needs of a marginalized community. Her decision to hang out with the pair for an after-hours dinner is compelling enough to maintain a one-act play of its own. Still, even this touching subplot — which finds Garland performing an impromptu rendition of “Get Happy” while her new pal plays along in tears — only goes surface deep.
But when Garland takes the stage, “Judy” comes alive. Goold is primarily a theater director, and his last feature, “True Story,” showed little connection to that world. But his theater roots serve the energy of a movie profoundly invested in the psychological turmoil that drove Garland’s extraordinary presence. The movie finds its groove for one brief moment when Garland performs “The Trolly Song” while cutting away to young Judy (Darci Shaw) being forced to take diet pills by her oppressive mother as she struggles through her early days of fame. The ebullient song strikes an ironic contrast with the disturbing nature of Garland’s oppressive youth, and while the meta quality of these sequences is mostly on-the-nose — the child is almost always seen within the confines of a shadowy film shoot — the music elevates them.
And so does Zellweger, delivering more substance and feeling than anything in her filmography of the past decade (granted, there hasn’t been much). In her first musical turn since “Chicago,” she sings live, and does such an uncanny job of channeling Garland’s performative strengths that she’s practically communing with Garland’s ghost. Yet all of that power and credibility collapses whenever “Judy” returns to the airless melodrama that afflicts the rest of the plot: Yes, Garland’s inability to retain custody of her children is another sad development in her downward spiral, and drunken meltdowns set the stage for her demise. But in “Judy,” they come across like placeholders to keep the story moving along.
Fortunately, “Judy” delivers in the climactic performance that’s an inevitability from the start. When Zellweger sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a spellbound audience, the song concludes with a contrived moment sure to invite some eye-rolls. But the emotion sinks in anyway, in part because it’s nearly impossible to screw up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Garland’s legacy may be tricky to recreate, her legacy perhaps too large for any biopic to contain, but the music speaks for itself.
“Judy” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will release it theatrically on September 27, 2019.
Zellweger likely lands in the Oscar race with this performance. It is not just the best thing shes ever done but a tender, memorable realization of a star who once shined very brightly but whose light was never built to last.
Guy Lodge Film Critic @guylodge FOLLOW Guy's Most Recent Stories Venice Film Review: ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’ ‘Joker’ Wins Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, Roman Polanski Takes Runner-Up Prize Film Review: ‘Strange But True’ View All Facebook Twitter Reddit Email Show more sharing options LinkedIn WhatsApp Print Pin It Tumblr Director: Rupert Goold With: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon Release Date: Sep 27, 2019 Rated PG-13 Running time: 117 MIN.
If it’s taken so long for a bigscreen biopic of Judy Garland to come to fruition, perhaps it’s because the lady herself warned off any attempts with one of her most famous quotes: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” It is not, admittedly, a saying that has deterred Hollywood from its ongoing fascination with famous people playing other famous people, though it’s a practice that yields more successful Oscar campaigns than for-the-ages performances: Prosthetically enhanced impersonation, for the most part, isn’t a repeatedly dazzling trick. Yet director Rupert Goold and resurgent star Renée Zellweger have pulled off something unusual and affecting in “Judy”: a biographical portrait in which performer and subject meet halfway, illuminating something of each other in the process.
Set in the final year before Garland’s death in 1969, “Judy” covers the shambolic London concert residency that was never supposed to be her last hurrah. Zellweger offers an all-singing, all-dancing, all-collapsing performance of the star at her lowest physical and psychological ebb: It’s gutsy, can’t-look-away work, yet it might not enthrall those who evaluate biopic turns as Olympian feats of technical mimicry. With the help of some expert makeup, hairstyling and costuming, her inhabitation of Garland is persuasive without being exhaustive; it’s a very different feat from the eerie, brilliant channeling that Judy Davis achieved to Emmy-winning effect in the 2003 miniseries “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”